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What makes good travel writing? | Call for pitches | New mentoring scheme
We're tackling a tricky subject this week - and we've got exciting news!
It feels like every time this monthly newsletter rolls around there’s something new and deeply depressing going on in the travel industry. The latest is, of course, last month’s cancellation of all travel corridors — which still hasn’t stopped Grant Shapps sending out his Thursday doom tweet, because now he gets to announce which countries will be banned from entering the UK entirely.
But this week we also had some glimmers of light in the travel media. Not only were the Travel Media Awards winners announced last week, giving The Telegraph, The Sun and the excellent journalists at TTG the recognition they deserve, but the brilliant Adventure.com awakened from its hibernation and have said they’ll start publishing again in the coming weeks. This is promising news.
Plus, before we dive into The Big Question in this week’s issue of TTW, we’ve got an exciting announcement of our own… We’re launching a mentorship scheme.
As we are only a team of two with a small budget to pay for our mentors’ time, we are launching the scheme for five paying subscribers only right now, but we hope that — should it be a success — we can roll it out to for all TTW subscribers to apply later down the line. Full details on our mentors and how to apply will be announced in a separate email to our paying subscribers in the coming days.
So, let’s get to it. This month we’re talking about the actual craft of travel writing, so here’s Lottie with the start-of-the-series op-ed.
What makes good travel writing?
I always get this deep sense of dread after filing a feature I’ve been working hard on. No matter how much I’ve tried to put excellent words down on proverbial paper, I am always left wondering if I’ve done a terrible job. I await the story’s return covered in marks and criticism, and wonder if I’ll ever get a commission from that editor again. I wonder, ultimately, if it is any good.
I remember when I first started out in this industry. I was working as the Web Editorial Assistant at Rough Guides. Somewhere in our pages and pages of editorial guidelines, where I would search for tips on how to become as good a writer as my colleagues, a phrase stood out to me:
Create a sense of place
It was the first time I had heard this term, “a sense of place”, and I was immediately intimidated. It’s all very well, I thought, but what does that actually mean in practical terms? What do I have to do with the words to create this “sense of place”?
It’s this phrase, and the term “colour”, that are some of the most-used in travel writing advice. When I asked Twitter what makes good travel writing last week, it was one of the most common replies. But so few people actually qualify this with an explanation, and we all take for granted that everyone knows what it means.
But there is more to “good travel writing” than just description. It’s also about your narrative, the sources you quote and your tone. You don’t have to be so serious. To quote prolific writer Mark O’Flaherty: “Travel — like sex — can be inherently funny.”
There’s also a difference between writing about tourism and doing actual travel writing, says recently-crowned Travel Writer of the Year, Jamie Lafferty. “One sells a product, one richly and accurately describes an experience, even the shit bits.” He went on to clarify:
So, there’s a lot to think about when it comes to doing travel writing well. I’ve certainly not got it all sussed. In fact, I have always felt relatively inferior to all my colleagues on this front. Despite my relative success in landing good jobs and decent commissions from a few big-name titles throughout my career, I have always felt — perhaps until this happened last week — my actual skill at travel writing is somewhat lacklustre.
So often I read my colleagues’ work and think, I wish I could write like that. Like in this story by Jon Holmes on Adventure.com, which actually made me laugh out loud. Or in Monisha Rajesh’s Around The World in 80 Trains, during which I could nearly taste every single dish she described.
My dear friend Helen Ochyra’s book, Scotland Beyond the Bagpipes, was also deeply compelling. Its deft descriptions and intriguing, often humorous details genuinely kept me turning pages. I think I devoured half of it in an afternoon during lockdown last year, and I finally closed the book a couple of weeks later, utterly in awe of her achievement. I just don’t know if I could ever write like that at such length.
I suppose it helps to have this self-doubt tugging at my sleeve every time I sit down to write. Of course, sometimes it can be debilitating — I took three afternoons off last month because every time I sat down to write a particular piece, I felt completely and utterly inadequate. But when it’s not so damaging and distracting, it can also be a driving force for improvement.
It’s not ideal, mind. So I’ll just keep going back to this thread and employ some of the techniques some of the best writers and editors on the internet have offered up. Thanks, all!
This is the free edition of Talking Travel Writing. Throughout February, paying subscribers will get exclusive tips from award-winning editors and high-profile travel writers, plus the lowdown from an actual expert whose academic field is all about travel writing. Don’t miss out and become a paying subscriber today:
Fodor’s emailed their contributors last week with their updated pitching guidelines, and a list of things they’re looking for right now:
First-person pandemic travel experiences
They still have some spots on the calendar for Black History Month pitches
Food origin stories — the history of a single dish that's significant to a region or culture
Profiles on fascinating travel folks — whether business owners, chefs, authors, etc.
Stories about books — especially round-ups
Fairy-tale travel — round-ups of the most whimsical, the most epic places, but also think outside the box, it doesn't need to be castles and haunted forests
Round-ups or in-depth reported stories on South America, Africa, the American Midwest and Rocky Mountain States
Plus, this just went out on TravMedia at the weekend from a South African mag called Travel Ideas Magazine:
We're a South African Travel Magazine looking for any stories on FRANCE - can be on any specific region or activity.
No specific style, just looking for any interesting story!! We pay 2500 Rand per story (and pictures if you have!!). Min word count: 1200 words
Thanks to the Write At Home newsletter for drawing our attention to this one.
Tweet of the week
Twitter being the pit of misery that it is so often, there were plenty of writers dishing out their “harsh writing advice” last week as they sought to make all of us feel even worse about our writing than we already do. However, we felt that this tweet did hold some truth:
Who to follow
We’ve long been followers of travel industry stalwart Stuart McDonald, who runs Travelfish — the highly useful Southeast Asia online travel guide — and his deeply entertaining pandemic project, Substack newsletter Couchfish.
He regularly engages with news and trends in the travel industry on Twitter, and has recently led some interesting debates on travel writing and ethics. Follow him for insightful perspectives, as well as the occasional call for pitches for Travelfish.
This month, we both enjoyed reading this piece on Couchfish about “secret places” that we find when we travel and what our ethical obligations are: should we be writing about them or should we keep schtum?
And finishing this week on a lighter note as we all need the laughs where we can get them right now: if you haven’t yet watched Tourism New Zealand’s new campaign “Travelling Under the Social Influence”, then this will be two and a half minutes of your day well spent. You’re welcome.
This is the free version of Talking Travel Writing. Don’t miss out on this month’s practical advice and editors’ insights and sign up as a paying subscriber for just £5 per month.